Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Chinese administrative reforms in international perspective
Exactly a year ago I was preparing to fly to Beijing – to start a major new project but I was not looking forward to the experience. Alarm bells had rung in the summer when I was first invited to go with the bid – and I told the contractors that neither the scale of the city nor the repressiveness of the regime appealed to me. Nor could I see what my experience could bring to the Chinese. What little I knew of the Chinese context suggested that it was so very different from anything I was used to.
But the temptation of seeing China was too great – and I agreed to go with the bid – not really expecting to win. We did – and the alarm bells started up again when I went to visit the contractors in November and began to realise what a gigantic bureaucracy they (let alone the EU) were! And that they wanted to offload virtually all the financial management to me as Team Leader. I prefer to focus on professional issues and let the contractors deal with finances.
I tried to put my foot down – but was still subjected to a lot of technical briefing about (expert) procurement and payment procedures which frankly bored the pants off me. When, 2 months later, we got to Beijing we were taken to the contractor’s huge offices there and subjected to the same briefing over several days with no Chinese counterpart in sight – at which point I began to realise that what was supposed to be a support system to us was in fact exactly the opposite. We were paying the local contractor’s branch office for services which were at best perfunctory - but expected to pass to them all project papers and information in a complex and time-consuming intranet system!
This was one of three factors which persuaded me to draft my resignation after only one week – the other two issues being the claustrophobia I felt in the dense mass and materialism of Beijing; and the failure of the Chinese to appoint anyone for us to work with. I had faced some difficult challenges in 7 years in central Asia (even a revolution) and a year in politicised Bulgaria - and survived and succeeded. The other key expert resigned a few months later (there were only two of us for a rather ambitious project which was another warning sign I had ignored!)
On my return home in March I took time to try to understand why I had so quickly felt so alienated on this project. Lost in Beijing was the result - in which I identified 17 reasons for my decision!!
I shared it with the contractors and some colleagues – but feel I should now put it in the public domain as a contribution to the gap in literature about this multi-billion industry which I identified recently. The paper has a few comments at the end about what I learned about public services in China – and these are developed in a separate briefing and reading and web references which I’ve also put on the website for anyone who suddenly finds themselves involved in discussions with the Chinese about issues relating to administrative reform! It’s called Chinese administrative reform in perspective - a revisionist briefing (May 1 update)and contains some provocative stuff about so-called western democracy.
Boffy has another good read on present economic issues.